WATCH: Florence hits North Carolina

Hurricane Florence made landfall in North Carolina early Friday, pushing a life-threatening storm surge of floodwater miles inland and ripping apart buildings with screaming wind and pelting rain.

More than 60 people had to be pulled from a collapsing motel at the height of the storm, and many more who defied evacuation orders were hoping to be rescued. Pieces of buildings ripped apart by the storm flew through the air. Most ominously, forecasters said the terrifying onslaught would last for hours and hours, because Florence was barely creeping along and still drawing energy from the ocean.

Florence made landfall as a Category 1 hurricane a few miles east of Wilmington, as the centre of its eye moved onshore near Wrightsville Beach, the National Hurricane Center said.

Coastal streets flowed with frothy ocean water and tens of thousands lost electricity. Forecasters said ``catastrophic'' freshwater flooding was expected along waterways far from the coast of the Carolinas. Winds bent trees toward the ground and raindrops flew sideways as Florence moved in for an extended stay, with enough of its killer winds swirling overseas to maintain its power.

Forecasters said the onslaught could last for days, leaving a wide area under water from both heavy downpours and rising seas. The wind howled and sheets of rain splattered against windows of a hotel before dawn in Wilmington, where Sandie Orsa of Wilmington sat in a lobby lit by emergency lights after the power failed.

``(It's) very eerie, the wind howling, the rain blowing sideways, debris flying,'' said Orsa, who lives nearby and fears splintering trees will pummel her house. Coastal towns in the Carolinas were largely empty, and schools and businesses closed as far south as Georgia.

Forecasters said conditions will continue to deteriorate as the storm makes its way slowly inland. Its surge could cover all but a sliver of the Carolina coast under as much as 11 feet (3.4 metres) of ocean water, and days of downpours could unload more than 3 feet (0.9 metres) of rain, touching off severe flooding.

Once a Category 4 hurricane with winds of 140 mph (225 kph), the hurricane was downgraded to a Category 1 on Thursday night. Forecasters said that given the storm's size and sluggish track, it could cause epic damage akin to what the Houston area saw during Hurricane Harvey just over a year ago, with floodwaters swamping homes and businesses and washing over industrial waste sites and hog-manure ponds.